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Weekly Column

Each week a small segment of Vernon County history is published in the county papers.

For the week of 3/17/2019
by Kristen Parrott, curator

Women’s History Month continues, and this week we’ll look at a local woman who ran for political office in 1924. The majority of women in the U.S. gained the right to vote in federal elections in 1920. Just four years later, Lillian Jussen Proctor ran for the office of Member of Assembly for Vernon County.

1924 was a big election year in Vernon County. The offices of U.S. president, Wisconsin governor, and our district’s assembly member were all on the ballot. Other hot topics of the day included Prohibition and the Ku Klux Klan. Prohibition was in its 5th year and was still very controversial. And in the 1920’s, the KKK re-branded itself as an organization that stood for morality and community standards, and saw a huge resurgence of popularity and membership.

Against this backdrop, Lillian Proctor ran on the Independent ticket. She had been born Lillian Jussen in 1879 to German immigrants in Wisconsin. As a young teacher, she married Harold Peres Proctor, a Viroqua lawyer, in 1901. They settled in Viroqua and became a part of the community.

In her September 18 candidacy announcement, Lillian stated that she supported WI Senator Robert M. Lafollette for president, and the current Governor Blaine for governor. She supported Prohibition and wanted stricter laws enforcing it. And she was opposed to the KKK and to all organizations founded on racial and religious prejudice, and suggested that the current assemblyman, A.E. Smith of Viroqua, was a member of the KKK. (He was. In late September, 100 Klansmen in white robes paraded up and down Viroqua’s Main Street with a burning cross, and no doubt Smith was among them.)

Lillian didn’t win the election, and A.E. Smith was re-elected. On November 5, the Vernon County Censor printed the election results and, with one precinct missing, there were 3981 votes for Smith and 2563 for Proctor. Smith carried 26 precincts, and Proctor 11. That’s a respectable showing for a woman running for office just a few years after the 19th amendment had passed.

So far as I know, Lillian never entered the political arena again. She became a businesswoman, running a knitting and giftware shop on Main St. in Viroqua. When her husband died in 1932, she continued to live and work in Viroqua for a few more years before moving to La Crosse. There she again set up in the “yarn” business, making and selling hand knit children’s clothing. Lillian Proctor died in La Crosse in 1953, age 75, and was buried in Viroqua.

Spring is coming, and the museum’s hours will soon be changing. Beginning on Monday, April 1 (no fooling!), the museum will be open Monday through Friday, noon to 4PM. These springtime hours will last through the months of April and May.

The museum’s next free public program will be held on Tuesday, April 2, at 7PM, in the conference room. Bill Quackenbush, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Ho-Chunk Nation, will speak on the topic of “Ho-Chunk History: Past, Present and Future”.


For the week of 3/10/2019
by Kristen Parrott, curator

Looking for “suffragettes”, women who were involved in the women’s suffrage movement of a century ago, I have come across the name of Tilda Omundson. In her lifetime, she fought for and gained the right to vote and to run for elected office here in Vernon County, and then she proceeded to do both.

How did Tilda prepare herself for this life of activism and service? Well, first she got an education. Tilda was born in Springville in 1875. In the late1800’s, many students left school after 8th grade, but she went on to high school, graduating from Viroqua High in 1894. Years later, in her late 40’s, she furthered her education by taking a three-year course at the Palmer Chiropractic School in Davenport, IA, graduating in 1924.

Tilda also developed leadership skills. With her high school diploma in hand, she began a teaching career in the late 1890’s. First she taught for eight years in Westby, then she taught and served as principal in Stoddard, and finally she taught 3rd grade in Viroqua. For 30 years she also taught Sunday School at the Viroqua Congregational Church.

She gained other leadership skills from her work during World War I, when she served as a purchasing agent for the Vernon County Red Cross, and as a retail price reporter for the U.S. Food Administration. In addition, Tilda was active in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union at a time when many temperance women in Wisconsin were also working for their right to vote. She also was a member of the Viroqua Women’s Literary Club, again at a time when women’s clubs were advocating for suffrage.

And Tilda developed her business skills. After she left teaching, she began to work alongside her father in his general store on North Main Street in Viroqua. When he died in 1919, she continued to run Omundson’s Store on her own until selling it in 1921. Next she became a chiropractor, as mentioned above, and ran her own chiropractic business in Viroqua for about 30 years.

This wide variety of skills and experiences helped Tilda Omundson in her efforts to gain the right to vote and to run for office. In the early 20th century, she campaigned for women’s suffrage around the county along with Amy Gott, Fay Smith, Kate Goodell, and Lora Minshall of Viroqua. She also served as a director on the Viroqua school board from 1914 to 1920, but at that time, board members were elected by those who attended the annual school district meeting, and not by a vote of the citizenry.

Then in 1934, Tilda took a major step by running for mayor of Viroqua. She ran against three other candidates: Frank Chase, who had been mayor in 1910; Sam J. Sauer, who had been mayor since 1930; and August E. Smith, who had been mayor in the early 1920’s. Frank Chase won the election, and Tilda, the least experienced candidate, received the fewest votes of the four. Although she was unsuccessful, it was no doubt a useful experience.

Nearly 20 years later, she ran for office again, this time with better results. In 1953, she was elected to the Viroqua City Council as second ward alderman, the first female alderman in Viroqua’s history. She repeated her success in 1955 and 1957.

Tilda Omundson died a few years later, in December of 1962, and was buried in the Viroqua Cemetery. Surely she helped pave the way for local women serving in elected offices today.


The previous two articles:

March 3, 2019

February 24, 2019